It’s often said that it’s easier to be creative about sadness and suffering than it is about joy and happiness. It’s also often said that for those who follow Jesus, the fact and presence of suffering in the world presents the most significant philosophical, ethical and practical challenges. Those two statements may be cliches, but they are cliches with a weight of truth and experience behind them; tragedies are considered higher art than comedies, and Christians have spilt a lot of theological ink confronting the issue of suffering.
Trying to explain or understand suffering, whilst it may be valuable, can obscure something important. How do we live in it and through it? How do we it do it ‘well’ as people who call themselves Christians? We may accept that it poses us theological and other types of questions, but that doesn’t necessarily help us deal with tragedy and pain when it hits home. Understanding can get us so far – but what we need alongside that are tools to help us live well through it all. That’s where a book like this one, Finding Hope And Meaning In Suffering by Trystan Owain Hughes comes in. It’s a short book, clocking in at 101 pages which seeks to do just that.
As for us all, the author has experienced his own measure of suffering and it’s from that space which he writes – he’s the Anglican Chaplain at Cardiff University who was diagnosed with a degenerative spinal condition at the age of 34. Those two realities – exercising a pastoral ministry and his own experiences of suffering – have caused him to reflect deeply on what God gives us that may enable us to flourish and grow in even the most hostile of environments. It’s a short – and brilliant - book, which really should be required reading for anyone who suffers, cares for someone suffering or desiring to grow as an effective disciple of Jesus. I’m not sure that anyone’s left out by that. This book is a prime example of how depth and weight can go hand in hand with readability and brevity.
The structure is simple. There’s an introductory chapter on the fact of suffering itself. He then, in two chapters lays two simple but profound foundations for living well in suffering. First comes awareness: living in the present moment in such a way that we are alive to the presence of God around us. Second comes acceptance: not resignation to suffering, but the radical acceptance of God’s goodness in even the darkest of places. There then follow a series of ‘building blocks’ – chapter by chapter reflections on aspects of life which create the space for life to grow in tough contexts: an awareness of and interaction with nature, the gift of laughter, the place of memory, the significance of art, the call to keep on helping others.
Every chapter engages with a variety of sources: these may be Biblical, more generally Christian, other faiths, or a variety of artistic expressions – from Jewish Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl to the TV show Heroes and onwards to Kylie Minogue. That’s one of the book’s real strengths – that even in such a well and concisely written book, there’s enough different perspectives for all of us to find something we ‘get’; this book may be the result of much thought, prayer and study – but it’s there to be read on the commute to work or lying lazily on the couch on a Sunday afternoon. This is a book which actively invites you in with its breadth of sources, the author’s own experience and the fact that it doesn’t so much try to explain as to give you something to go away and work into your own pattern of life and discipleship. One point on that – there’s a few spoilers in here about books and films. Place the reading of this book on hold, for example, if you’re are reading or planning to read Ian McEwen’s book Atonement or you’re saving up the DVD for a Christmas treat. You don’t want that surprise ruined.
That’s a minor quibble, really. Here’s another one, of a very different type. There’s so much richness here that to limit the book to the topic of suffering may be selling it short, limiting the impact. The suggestions – the foundations and building blocks – are valuable for living through suffering precisely because they are valuable for all of life. In other words they (along with other practices) help us live life as God intended it to be lived – to the full. This isn’t just a book about how to live well in experiences of suffering – it’s a book about how to live life well for God in the world to which He calls us.
So this is a book to read, re-read, practice and digest, to buy and to give. Even if – or perhaps especially – you’re not really suffering. Because, as a book like this shows us, it’s worth living life well, whatever the scenery.
I rated this book 5/5 on goodreads.com